Pluck of the Irish

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The old adage that ‘nice guys finish last’ isn’t strictly true, but they rarely finish first. To succeed in motor sport at a high level requires steel-plated self-belief. That and a certain clear-eyed ruthlessness. But there are exceptions. Reeling off a list of Alec Poole’s, achievements in motor sport is met with a look of playful incredulity from the man himself. That and a shrug, as though his career has been one long lucky streak. As a former works BMC driver, one with a British Saloon Car Championship title on his résumé, he has every right to brag, but instead appears baffled by the attention.

Writer, Richard Heseltine

“It isn’t as though I’d planned a career in motor racing,” he says. “My grandfather built up a motor business just outside Dublin, importing MGs and Wolseleys and so on. Later we got involved in assembling them in southern Ireland, too. In the 1960s the British Motor Corporation was one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world. We thought it would always be there. Anyway, I was sent over to England to become a BMC apprentice in order to learn the ropes. You’d get shunted around departments and soon learned to use your time to your advantage. You’d get

transferred to SU Carburettors, the glassfibre shop; anywhere that might prove useful to the cause. At the end of the week, most other apprentices would go home while guys like me, who came from farther afield, would work on our cars and enter whatever event we could. It could be a driving test, a road rally and so on. That is how l got started.”

After initial runs in an MGA and an MG Midget in the early ’60s, Poole soon began to attract attention on track aboard a series of Frogeye Sprites. The most successful was a `bitsa’ built on a pocketchange budget. “The MG factory at Abingdon was the place to be as an apprentice, especially as that was where BMC’s Competition Department was located. I was moved to Abingdon and soon got the lie of the land. In the grounds of the factory was a Sprite shell that had been used by the company that made the convertible roofs. It had been returned to the works after it was of no further use. I didn’t mess about. I went straight to John Thornley, who was the general manager there, and explained that I was looking to build a race car. He enjoyed winding me up, making me work for it. From me it was all ‘yes sir, no sir’. He looked very serious, and insisted that he couldn’t just give it away. It would cost me five whole pounds!

“Geoff Healey then let me have a one-off aluminium front end and a glassfibre rear, while Eddie Maher came up with a 1275cc engine from the experimental department and Jimmy Cox of Special Tuning bought it up to Formula Junior-spec. I think I had maybe £25 invested in it.” Our hero claimed the John Gott Trophy spoils in 1965, dovetailing sports car exploits with runs in another shoestring racer — a demon Wolseley Hornet that dominated its class in Ireland and also beat John Rhodes’ Downton Mini on the Brands Hatch GP circuit that season. “There was a rationale behind using a Hornet,” Poole says. “It was a bit like when I was racing the Sprites. You’d have all these other Austin-Healey guys using Sebring-style nosecones, fastback roofs and whatever, but you got more attention if your car looked relatively ordinary, when it wasn’t expected to be quick. And that was the same with the Wolseley. It had been brought over to Ireland for appraisal and was then used as a courtesy car before I got my hands on it. I gradually developed the car until it was about the fastest thing out there. You’d be up against 15 or so Mini Coopers and having the only Hornet got me noticed.”

*

Yet it was aboard another development hack that Poole made the leap to international player. In May 1966, he and friend Roger Enever descended on a sodden Brands Hatch for the Ilford Films 500 endurance race where, improbably, the duo finished third overall behind a 7-litre AC Cobra and a Ford GT40. They were sharing a borrowed MGB. “We got a bollocking from clerk of the course Nick Syrett for using all of the track and quite a lot of the grass, but it was a great result. That got us thinking that we should look at long-distance races. Anyway, lying around the factory in Abingdon was an MGB that had been used for testing the five-bearing version of the B-series engine. We were able to wangle a deal and we then set about turning it into racing car. Roger and I did the 1966 Marathon de la Route in it, which was 84 hours around the NiIrburgring — both the Nord and old Sudschleife. It was so foggy, you had to drive around from memory and it wasn’t an easy circuit to learn. That year we’d lapped the entire field at one point but then a driveshaft broke with four hours to go. I went back the following year, sharing a works Mini with Clive Baker and Roger. It was foggy most nights, naturally, and I overtook Vic Elford’s Porsche shortly before leaving the road. I rolled the car and Vic told me later that he’d wondered how a helicopter had managed to land in the fog, not realising that it was just my car’s headlights going around and around in mid-air…

“I loved doing the long-distance stuff. In 1966 Roger and I did the 1000km race at Montlhery and in ’67 we tried to do as many big events as we could afford, towing our MGB behind an old Z-series Magnette. That year we also did the Monza 1000km race. Roger’s dad — Syd Enever, MG’s chief engineer — kindly filled both of the B’s 12-gallon tanks before we left. We then drove around the corner and drained both of them so that we had enough fuel for the Magnette. Luckily, we managed to get some more petrol out of Shell at the track but even then we were broke. We were camping, too. Well, we finished the race with bald tyres and somehow won our class. Then we went to Spa and won our class again. We now had prize money so found ourselves a hotel. We never did go back and retrieve our tents! One of the things I remember most fondly about those Continental races, though, was meeting Denis Jenkinson. He took an interest in what Roger and I were doing, and wrote some very nice things about us in Motor Sport. His encouragement meant a lot to a couple of young lads.”

Jenks wasn’t the only one who’d noticed Poole, the crack Chequered Flag equipe offering him an F3 ride in a Brabham BT18 that same season. “I hadn’t really considered single-seaters before, because you needed to be built like a jockey to fit in them and I certainly wasn’t,” he says, laughing. “I was too tall to be comfortable and probably weighed 16 stone. I got the call from [team owner] Graham Warner, who was keen to see how I’d get on. He was also trying out Tim Schenken. I did a race at Silverstone, and then another at Crystal Palace, but I wasn’t really in the hunt. I beat Tim, though.”

Poole’s results in long-distance races also led to a works MGB seat for the ’67 Targa Florio.

“That was quite an experience. Arriving in Sicily in those days was like going back in time 100 years. Unfortunately, Andrew Hedges crashed our car before I got a chance to drive it.” Then there was a factory Healey outing for the following year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. “That was the year that the race was held in September rather than June, because of the student riots. That meant it got dark that bit earlier, which made for a long night. It also rained a lot. Roger and I were sharing one of the streamlined Sprites, which were capable of maybe 140mph flat out.

“I have two abiding memories from that race. The first involved Roger and I persuading Geoff Healey to let us put a small aluminium strip on the car’s bobbed tail, creating what was in effect a spoiler. He grumbled about us young whippersnappers and our new-fangled ideas. The thing was, in doing so we found about 3mph and the car was also more stable on the Mulsanne Straight. My other memory is of talking with Geoff before the start. I asked him if we should change from the practice tyres to a new set of race tyres. He replied with something along the lines of ‘They were OK last year’, which I took to mean that starting on the practice tyres had worked well last time around so we should go the same way. It was only later that it dawned on me what he actually meant: we were using the previous year’s race tyres! We finished 15th overall and received the Motor Trophy as ours was the first British car home.”

That year Poole joined the British Vita Racing squad for an assault on the European Touring Car Championship, before stepping into an Equipe Arden Cooper 970S for a British Saloon Car Championship campaign in ’69. “We had an incredibly quick Mini. Jim Whitehouse built some great engines, and managed to get a lot from ours with fuelinjection, eight-port heads and so on. We had a good season.” By which he means he won the title outright…

Poole also joined great mate Paddy Hopkirk and Tony Nash to finish second in that season’s gruelling London-to-Sydney Marathon. Unfortunately, a clash with Richard Longman’s Mini at Brands at the end of ’69 put a dampener on things, Poole recovering in time to tackle the 1970 World Cup Rally alongside Roger Clark in a Ford Escort: they made it as far as Brazil before connecting with a civilian’s VW.

*

No matter, Poole continued to race Minis, his Complan-backed Cooper putting out 190bhp once it gained a turbo part-way through 1970. Other radical Minis followed, before Poole came out of left-field for a tilt at Super Saloons. Though nominally a Skoda 110R, his housed a two-litre Cosworth BDG four-banger. “The car belonged to Derek McMahon who sponsored me, and Dick Bennetts did our engine. We gave the Vauxhalls a fright [he was second to Gerry Marshall in the ’75 Tricentrol series], but then we started coming up against rebodied F5000 cars. To my mind, they spoiled a good category.”

So Poole moved back to sports cars, rounding out his frontline driving career with Diego Febles Racing. “I got to know Diego when we did some end-of-season races in the Caribbean in the early ’70s,” he says. “He’d raced in Cuba before Castro took over and was now living in Puerto Rico. I joined him for Le Mans in ’76 in an ex-Peter Gregg Porsche 3.0 RSR. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish as the gearbox broke. Our best result was two years later in the Daytona 24 Hours. We had a great race and made up a lot of ground as the turbo cars broke. We ended up third overall [and class winners]. We then did the Sebring 12 Hours and were well up the order at half-distance, in about fourth place. I was having this almighty battle with another Porsche — had been for about half an hour — and got past him just as this wheel came flying past. I remember thinking ‘great, that’s him out’. Then I put the power down and realised it was one of mine.”

*

There would be further outings, but business interests soon took precedence. Then followed a full-time comeback from the other side of the pitwall as Nissan Europe’s competitions manager, Poole masterminding the marque’s BTCC campaigns during the ’90s.

Factory driver Anthony Reid only narrowly missed out on the ’98 title, but Laurent Aiello went one better the following year — 30 years after his boss had been similarly crowned.

Poole subsequently managed Nissan’s Dakar Rally bids and, more recently, he and former World Rally Championship co-driver Fred Gallagher have turned their attention to historics via their well-received Tour Britannia events. “It’s only afterwards, looking back, that you realise how lucky you were,” he says. “I’m glad I raced when I did. I cannot imagine starting out today. I don’t think I’d get very far with a car built for £25, would I?”

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